Articles Posted in Employment Discrimination

Federal employment anti-discrimination law identifies five protected categories: race, color, religion, national origin, and sex. Court decisions have added nuance to these categories, particularly with regard to sex discrimination. Most courts, in interpreting federal law, have been unwilling to extend the law’s prohibition against discrimination on the basis of sex to include factors like sexual orientation or gender identity. New Jersey and other states have amended their own anti-discrimination laws to include specific protections against these forms of discrimination in employment, housing, and other areas. The U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R.5, known as the Equality Act, in May 2019. The bill would amend federal law to match anti-discrimination laws in states like New Jersey.

The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) includes “affectional or sexual orientation,” “sex,” and “gender identity or expression” in its list of protected categories. N.J. Rev. Stat. § 10:5-12(a). The law defines “affectional or sexual orientation” as a person’s actual, perceived, or presumed orientation with regard to “affectional, emotional or physical attraction or behavior” towards members of the opposite gender, one’s own gender, or either gender. Id. at § 10:5-5(hh) – (kk). “Gender identity or expression” refers to a person’s actual or perceived identity or mode of expression that might not be “stereotypically associated with a person’s assigned sex at birth.” Id. at § 10:5-5(rr). This may include people who identify with a different gender than the one assigned at birth, or people who identify as non-binary.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not include protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity or expression, at least officially. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has taken the position that the statute’s prohibition on sex discrimination includes prohibitions on both additional forms of discrimination. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reached the same conclusion regarding sexual orientation in 2017, followed by the Second Circuit in 2018. The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the appeal of the Second Circuit’s ruling, alongside the appeal in an Eleventh Circuit case that reached the opposite conclusion. It will also hear the appeal of a Sixth Circuit decision applying Title VII to a gender identity discrimination claim.
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The Resnick Law Group recently represented a teacher in a disability discrimination case at the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division, and obtained a reversal of a lower court order dismissing the case. The teacher alleges that her employer’s failure to provide a reasonable accommodation for her disability caused her to suffer injury when she collapsed at work. One of the questions before the court involved whether she could assert a cause of action for disability discrimination under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) without evidence of an “adverse employment action.” The court held that she could.

The NJLAD prohibits discrimination on the basis of actual, perceived, or past disabilities. N.J. Rev. Stat. § 10:5-12(a), N.J.A.C. § 13:13-1.3. This includes a requirement that employers provide “reasonable accommodations” to employees with disabilities, which would allow them to perform the functions of their jobs. The plaintiff taught science at a middle school in the defendant’s school district. She had Type 1 diabetes, which means that she must eat on a rather strict schedule to prevent her blood sugar from getting too low. The defendant denied requests to modify her class schedule so she could always have an early lunch period. She alleges that, as a result, she suffered a hypoglycemic episode in front of her students. She fell and hit her face and head on a table and the floor. After a successful claim for workers’ compensation, she filed suit under the NJLAD.

The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s NJLAD failure to accommodate claim, finding that she had failed to establish an adverse employment action. The Appellate Division identified three questions it had to address:
1. Does a plaintiff alleging failure to accommodate a disability have to establish an adverse employment action in order to avoid summary judgment dismissal?
2. If not, is a bodily injury claim brought under the NJLAD barred by the Workers’ Compensation Act (WCA)?
3. If the case were to proceed, should any recovery be offset by workers’ compensation payments?
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The Resnick Law Group recently won a notable victory for New Jersey employees related to a failure to accommodate an employee’s disability. This post discusses the legal background of the case, while a subsequent post will cover the court’s opinion. The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability, among many other factors. This includes terminating or refusing to hire a person because they have a disability, Under rules found in the New Jersey Administrative Code, disability discrimination also includes refusing to provide a reasonable accommodation to an employee with a disability. One of our attorneys recently argued a case before the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division, on behalf of an employee who was denied an accommodation for a chronic illness. After the defendant allegedly denied the employee’s request for an accommodation, she collapsed at work and suffered injuries. The appeal involved questions of whether a failure to accommodate claim under the NJLAD could proceed without evidence of an “adverse employment action,” and whether state workers’ compensation law barred her bodily injury claims. In early June 2019, the Appellate Division ruled that the employee’s lawsuit could move forward.

The term “disability” has a very broad definition under the NJLAD. In additional to various injuries and congenital conditions, it includes “physical…infirmity,…which is caused by…illness.” N.J. Rev. Stat. § 10:5-5(q). State regulations adopt this definition, but also add the perception or belief that a person has a disability, regardless of whether they actually do, and a history of “ha[ving] been a person with a disability at any time.” N.J.A.C. § 13:13-1.3.

The statute requires employers to “make a reasonable accommodation to the limitations of an employee…who is a person with a disability.” Id. at § 13:13-2.5(b). The employee in the Appellate Division case referenced above has Type 1 diabetes and needs accommodations in the daily work schedule to manage their blood sugar. State regulations include “modified work schedules” among the accommodations employers must consider for employees with disabilities. Id. An employer can avoid the obligation to provide a reasonable accommodation only if they “can demonstrate that [it] would impose an undue hardship on the operation of its business.” Id.
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The New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division has revived a lawsuit alleging employment discrimination on the basis of gender under state and federal laws. The plaintiffs allege that a set of “personal appearance standards” (PAS) maintained by their employer, an Atlantic City casino, discriminated on the basis of gender. They further claim that the defendant enforced the PAS in a harassing manner. The case has followed an unusual path. In 2015, the Appellate Division partially reversed a Law Division order granting summary judgment to the defendant. The Law Division proceeded to grant summary judgment to the defendant again in July 2016. The Appellate Division reversed the Law Division’s order in May 2019. It found that the Law Division was bound by the 2015 ruling and that the court erred by dismissing the case on remand. The appellate court remanded the case once more, ruling that “after a decade of motion practice and appeals, plaintiffs are entitled to their day in court.”

State and federal employment statutes in New Jersey prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sex and gender. Court decisions and statutes have defined multiple forms of unlawful sex discrimination. These include “hostile work environment,” a form of sexual harassment in which pervasive and unwelcome sexual remarks or behavior render an employee unable to perform their job duties. Discrimination on the basis of “sex stereotyping,” in which an employer takes an adverse action against an employee because they do not fit certain stereotypes about members of their sex, is also unlawful. In some situations, employees can establish violations of anti-discrimination laws based on the disparate impact of a policy or practice, even if the employer did not intend to discriminate on the basis of sex or another factor.

The plaintiffs in the above-described lawsuit worked as “costumed beverage servers.” They had to agree to the PAS as a condition of employment. The PAS mandated specific features like “a natural hourglass shape” for women and “a natural ‘V’ shape with broad shoulders and a slim waist” for men. The defendant reportedly modified the PAS in February 2005 in order “to elucidate the ‘weight proportioned to height’ standard.” The revised PAS stated that employees’ weight could not increase by more than seven percent, as compared to their weight when they were hired. Weigh-ins occurred at seemingly random times. These changes formed the basis of many of the complaints leading to the lawsuit.
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The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) bars employers from discriminating against their employees on the basis of factors like age, race, sex, and disability. This includes terminating an employee, refusing to hire a job applicant, demoting or declining to promote an employee, and many other decisions involving employment benefits and conditions. The New Jersey Appellate Division recently ruled (the “Opinion”) that a woman’s claims for age and disability discrimination can move forward, finding that she had raised sufficient questions of fact about the defendant’s claimed reasons for terminating her employment.

The NJLAD prohibits discrimination on the basis of numerous factors, including age and disability. In the Opinion, the court reviewed the process for a claim under the NJLAD. A plaintiff must establish four elements: (1) they are part of a protected class and (2) are qualified for the position they held; and (3) the employer took an adverse employment action and (4) replaced the plaintiff with someone who is not part of the protected class. The burden of proof then shifts to the defendant to “articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason” for the adverse action. Finally, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant’s alleged reason was pretextual, meaning that it was merely cover for a discriminatory purpose.

Reportedly, the defendant terminated the plaintiff shortly after she underwent gallbladder surgery. She was fifty years old at the time and had recently received “a ‘strong performance’ evaluation” from the defendant. She alleged that the defendant replaced her with “a person nearly half her age.” The reason given by the defendant for the termination involved a claim that she “attempted to defraud [the defendant] by failing to take steps to remove her ex-husband from the company’s health insurance plan.”
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When an employee begins working for an employer, they are often required to sign an employment agreement that establishes numerous features of the employer-employee relationship. Most provisions involve standard matters like job expectations, wages, and termination of the employment relationship. Employment agreements may also include provisions for nondisclosure of various types of information, as well as waivers of certain rights. When employers and employees enter into settlement agreements to resolve disputes, an employer may seek a nondisclosure clause as well. Provisions like these may hinder individuals’ ability to assert their rights under employment statutes like the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD). At least partly in response to increased attention on sexual harassment in the workplace, the New Jersey Legislature enacted a bill in January 2019 that amends the NJLAD to prohibit enforcement of certain nondisclosure agreements, as well as waivers of rights under the NJLAD or similar statutes.

The NJLAD prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of race, religion, sex, age, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, and many other factors. Courts have held that prohibitions on sex discrimination in the NJLAD and other laws cover sexual harassment, as well as harassment based on other protected factors. Unlawful harassment generally includes two scenarios: (1) acquiescence to or tolerance of harassing behavior, including sexual advances, is made a condition of employment; and (2) pervasive and unwelcome harassing behavior creates a hostile work environment that interferes with an individual’s ability to perform their job duties.

The #MeToo movement has allowed people all over the country to come forward with their own experiences, when many of them might have been afraid to do so before. Nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) in discrimination and harassment cases may prevent people with similar experiences from sharing their stories. Last year, California and New York enacted limits on NDAs in situations involving alleged sexual harassment. California now prohibits NDAs that purport to “prevent[] the disclosure of factual information related to a” lawsuit or administrative complaint alleging sexual harassment. New York now has similar provisions in its laws barring NDAs in settlements and other resolutions of sexual harassment disputes.
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New Jersey is among the more than half of all U.S. states that allows the possession and use of small amounts of marijuana for medical purposes, under the supervision of a physician. Recreational use is still prohibited by state law, and federal law still prohibits possession and use for any purpose. Conflicts among various laws have led to much confusion. The New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division recently ruled on how this state’s marijuana laws affect employment discrimination laws. The court reversed the dismissal of a lawsuit brought by an individual whose cancer treatment plan included a medical marijuana prescription. The plaintiff alleged that his former employer fired him in violation of state laws prohibiting disability discrimination. Published Decision (the “Decision”).

The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of factors like race, religion, sex, and disability. N.J. Rev. Stat. § 10:5-12(a). It defines the term “disability” to include “physical disability [or] infirmity…which is caused by…illness.” Id. at § 10:5-5(q). This includes many the physical and other symptoms caused by many forms of cancer.

A plaintiff alleging disability discrimination under the NJLAD must prove four elements:
1. The employee had a disability, or the employer perceived the employee as having a disability;
2. The employee was still qualified to perform, and was still performing, “the essential functions of the job”;
3. The employee suffered “an adverse employment action” because of the actual or perceived disability; and
4. The employer “sought a similarly qualified individual” to replace the employee.
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Technology is constantly providing new ways to help both employers and employees in New Jersey. Unfortunately, sometimes a technology that helps employers does so at employees’ expense. Our legal system can be slow to catch up with new innovations. Fitness trackers, which are devices individuals can wear to track movement and other vital statistics, are becoming more and more common. Many employers have taken notice of this. A recent Washington Post article describes fitness trackers as “an increasingly valuable source of workforce health intelligence for employers.” Employers’ access to, and use of, employees’ fitness tracker data raises concerns about privacy. In some cases, it could raise concerns about employment discrimination. Federal and New Jersey employment laws prohibit discrimination on a wide range of factors, and protect privacy in certain areas. Opinions are mixed on the extent to which they cover fitness tracker data.

Arguably, employers use employee fitness tracker data to monitor performance. The devices record information about an employee’s movement, or lack thereof. This could be relevant to job performance, but it could also present problems. The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) prohibits employers from discriminating against employees and job applicants on the basis of disability. N.J. Rev. Stat. § 10:5-12(a). The statute defines this term very broadly, covering a wide range of physical and mental conditions that “prevent[] the normal exercise of any bodily or mental functions.” Id. at § 10:5-5(q). At the federal level, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, as amended by the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) of 2008, also prohibits employment discrimination. This statute’s definition of “disability” includes both actual and perceived disabilities. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 12102(1)(C), 12112.

State and federal antidiscrimination law also prohibit discrimination by employers based on genetic information. This could be an issue for employers using fitness tracker data in some situations. The NJLAD defines “genetic information” as “information about genes, gene products or inherited characteristics.” N.J. Rev. Stat. § 10:5-5(oo). The plain language of the statute suggests that the information does not have to come from a genetic test ordered by the employer. The federal Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) focuses more specifically on genetic testing. It defines “genetic information” as information derived from a person’s genetic test or that of a family member, or “the manifestation of a disease or disorder” in a member of that person’s family. 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000ff(4)(A), 2000ff-1(a).
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The technology industry is gaining prominence in New Jersey. A list of the five hundred fastest-growing tech companies from last year included sixteen New Jersey companies. A strong tech industry can bring many benefits to state and local economies, but the tech industry also has its share of problems. The industry’s struggles with age and gender discrimination have received a great deal of media attention. A common feature in the tech industry that does not receive as much attention, in the context of employment law, is the expectation that employees work long hours. Despite research suggesting that longer hours do not translate into greater productivity or value, numerous industries continue to view working far in excess of forty hours per week as both a rite of passage and an ongoing necessity. It may also, according to some critics, be a form of New Jersey disability discrimination.

The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) and the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of disability. N.J. Rev. Stat. § 10:5-12(a), 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a). The ADA defines a disability in very general terms as a “physical or mental impairment” that impedes a person’s “major life activities.” 42 U.S.C. § 12102(1). Employers must make “reasonable accommodations” for employees with disabilities, defined to include both modifications for physical accessibility and modifications to shift schedules or job duties. Id. at § 12111(9).

The popular perception of a “disability” in the workplace probably involves a person with impaired mobility, or who is otherwise unable to perform some physical aspect of a job, such as lifting heavy objects. This is far from the only type of disability. Impairments affecting eyesight or hearing, for example, could qualify as a disability under the ADA. Chronic illnesses that affect energy levels of energy can also be considered disabilities. People who experience ongoing fatigue because of a medical condition may not be able to work more than forty hours per week, let alone eighty or more hours. The tech industry reportedly does not track disability among its employees, so it is difficult to know the extent of the issue.
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Wage disparity is an important—and controversial—topic in American politics. Women, on average, tend to make less than men. The same is often true for people of color as compared to White employees. Some lawmakers and officials at the local and state level are looking at ways that employers, intentionally or not, may perpetuate wage gaps through inquiries into job applicants’ salary histories. Such inquiries may make it difficult for job applicants to negotiate salaries that break from historical patterns of wage disparity. Bans on employer salary history inquiries are becoming more common around the country. Statutes focused on New Jersey employment law do not prohibit such inquiries by private employers, but a 2018 executive order prohibits them among state offices and agencies. Earlier this year, Suffolk County, New York became the latest local government to enact a salary history ban. A few states, such as Wisconsin and Michigan, have gone in a different direction by barring local governments from enacting bans of their own.

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed Executive Order #1 on January 16, 2018, in his first official act after he took the oath of office. The text of the order notes that women in New Jersey receive wages of eighty-two cents for every dollar paid to men in full-time jobs, and that this gap appears regardless of industry or education level. These disparities are even more pronounced when the full-time wages of African-American and Latina women are compared to those of White men in New Jersey—fifty-eight cents and forty-three cents, respectively. The order declares that New Jersey workers “should be compensated based on the nature of the work and services they provide.”

The order took effect on February 1 of last year. It prohibits state entities from inquiring about salary history, including both direct inquiries to job applicants and independent investigations, until a conditional offer of employment has been made. Applicants may voluntarily provide information, but may not be required to do so. If a state entity already has information about an applicant’s salary history, it may not consider that information when making a hiring decision, unless a statute or collective bargaining agreement requires it to do so. The executive order does not create a private cause of action for aggrieved job applicants, but does empower the governor’s office to investigate claims “and take appropriate remedial measures.”
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